Dealing With Bigotry


I received a thought-provoking email from a reader in the Southern U.S. about her struggle around coming out as an atheist/agnostic and her understandable fears about how others will respond. I do not have any easy answers for her, but I want to share portions of her struggle and offer what little I can. I'll call her Rachel to help conceal her identity.

Rachel identifies herself as Hispanic and says that she was raised in one of those traditional Catholic families where questioning faith is simply not done. She describes herself as agnostic, but like most people who claim to be agnostic, I suspect that she is actually an agnostic atheist (see Understanding Atheism and Agnosticism).

Atheists Continue to Face Bigotry in the United States

It is clear that Rachel feels oppressed by the religious majority, and I suspect many of us can relate.

It seems that so many of us, even including myself depending on who the audience is, will not proudly admit our non-theistic beliefs. I see so many Christians posting bible quotes and praising their Lord all day, every day on facebook. However, I feel that we do not have the same luxury. Do you know how much backlash I would get if I publicly endorsed the genius documentary, Religulous, by Bill Maher?

This double-standard where Christians can flaunt their religion without fear of consequences while atheists must worry about everything from ostracization to physical assault for expressing ourselves is part of Christian privilege, and it is a very real problem. Most Christians are blind to it, and yet, most of us experience it daily.

Maybe it’s because I’m in Texas, or maybe it’s because I need to stop caring about what people think. Nonetheless, I’d like to examine why we are the most untrusted minority and why we don’t also have the same rights that are given to racial minorities, the GLBT community, and so forth. Where is our freedom of speech? Where are our billboards and commercials?

When I look at the Civil Rights movement and the LGBT movement, one of the things that stands out to me is that nobody gave these minorities rights until they demanded them and made it clear that they were not going to take no for an answer. Atheists have not done that yet. Another important lesson is that these struggles took considerable time. Unbelievably, it is still illegal in most states for same-sex couples to marry. Bigotry is ugly, and it has a way of sticking around.

Reason for Optimism

The good news is that things are beginning to change. Membership in national groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation is on the increase, and we have a solid presence on the Internet. The mainstream media has taken notice of atheism in a way that we haven't seen since Madalyn Murray O'Hair. We have books, billboards, and we will hopefully soon have a major Hollywood film featuring an atheist lead. I know it isn't nearly enough, but it is a start.

As more of us realize what is at stake and refuse to remain silent in the face of Christian privilege and religiously-motivated bigotry, we are beginning to find our voice. The more of us who begin to speak out, the harder it will be for anyone to silence us. Bigotry becomes much harder to maintain when it is exposed for what it is.

I know it often seems like we must make a choice between hiding ourselves to avoid retaliation and being completely open about our atheism and risking it all. But there are points between these two extremes. The challenge for Rachel, and many of us, is how to strike the sort of balance with which we can live.